The Best of Times. Seriously.

Column / Don Newman


Provinces suing the federal government. Provinces suing each other. Voices rising along with tempers and the temperature of federal-provincial relations. Is Canada coming apart at the seams?

Certainly, things have become more lively in Canada on the constitutional and national unity file. After 20 years of relative tranquility following a closely run and heavily contested referendum in Quebec on the future of that province in the country, things have started to heat up again.

But this time Quebec is not a principal player. At least not yet. And neither is the question of one or more provinces continuing as part of Canada a principal issue. At least not yet.

Instead, the main protagonists are Alberta versus British Columbia, and Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario fighting Ottawa over the federal government’s carbon tax to cut greenhouse gas emissions and Canada’s contribution to global warming.

Canada’s two westernmost provinces are fighting over the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. The expansion will more than double the size, more than double the amount of the production from Alberta’s oil sands crossing B.C. to arrive on the West Coast, and more than double the number of tankers in the Port of Vancouver to ship the bitumen to Asia.

Alberta needs the pipeline expansion to develop new markets for the oil sands. Pipelines both east and west are already filled to capacity. The recently elected Conservative government in Alberta says it will make certain the Trans Mountain extension is built.

But the New Democratic Party government in B.C. is equally determined to stop the expansion. The minority NDP are propped up by three Green Party members, and though they lost the first round in court they are appealing that decision as they try to stop the Trans Mountain expansion.

Alberta has retaliated by saying it will cut off all oil transmission to B.C. if the government there doesn’t back off.

The federal government is involved in the dispute because under the Constitution, interprovincial pipelines and interprovincial trade are Ottawa’s responsibility.

Ottawa is also under attack in the courts from the Conservative governments of Alberta, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The issue is the carbon tax the Liberal federal government has imposed on those provinces which do not have a carbon reduction program of their own.

But while tensions between some of the country’s government are definitely higher today than they have been in recent years, before starting a lament for Canada, recall if you can how things were in the “Good Old Days,” 50, 40, 30 or 20 years ago.

From the election of a separatist government in Quebec in 1976, to referendums on sovereignty in 1980 and 1995, from the negotiations over the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the early 80s to the demise of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990, Canadian federalism has been a noisy work in progress. 

At the same time the constitutional crisis was enveloping the country, Ottawa was engaged in an energy crisis with Alberta over the domestic price of oil, and how petroleum revenues should be divided between Ottawa and the producing provinces. 

At the moment, things are heating up again, but ultimately the pipeline dispute between Alberta and British Columbia will be decided by the courts. And despite the court challenges over the carbon tax, it is really just a political fight between the Liberals and Conservatives.

And in an election year, this turns out to be a weapon of choice, with federal Liberals promoting a carbon tax to achieve reduced emissions, and provincial Conservatives opposing it as inhibiting their own capacity to act on the environment. 

By Canada’s very nature as a federation, the fundamental discussion between Ottawa and the provinces turns on the division of powers in the Constitution Act. 

These are normal federal-provincial squabbles, but nothing to get too excited about.

Compared to what Canada and Canadians have gone through in the past half century, this seems very much like the best of times.  


Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Navigator Limited and Ensight Canada, and a lifetime member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.